Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » How do journalists cope with covering tragedy?


I was pleasantly surprised to bump into friend and former colleague Kevin Vaughan at last week's Associated Press Media Editors conference in Nashville.

He served on a panel titled "Lessons from Aurora, Colo." Sadly, Vaughan has much expertise on the subject of covering mass shootings. He was the lead reporter in the Rocky Mountains News coverage of the Columbine shootings in 1999 and now works as the city editor for the Denver Post. To add to the emotional toll, the grown child of Vaughan's friends was among the victims of the Aurora movie theater shootings.

Even before feeling a loss so personally, Vaughan always tried to observe the Golden Rule in how he treated sources. "We're in this for the long haul," he said of local newspaper journalists. We don't practice hit-and-run journalism.

Another panelist with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma explained how exposure to traumatic events can deeply affect journalists, too. He encouraged editors to be aware of warning signs and to encourage their reporters to get help when needed.

The discussion reminded several of us of our time as reporters on the police beat and our work on other stressful stories such as the 9/11 attacks. You never get used to the sadness, and the Dart expert said you even might become less able to handle it with experience. Some studies suggest exposure to trauma can build up over time, leading you to react more strongly to a new incident.

Journalists don't dwell on the subject because we know we're not the ones directly affected by the trauma we cover. In no way do we want our stress to diminish the loss felt by those who have lost a loved one.